A founder of several highly impactful ventures, Ndidi Nwuneli is driven by the urge to transform lives and build strong ecosystems in both West Africa and the wider continent. After studying at Harvard University and the Wharton School, she worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company. In 2002, Ndidi founded LEAP Africa, which has empowered and supported many young leaders. In 2009, she cofounded AACE Foods with her husband, Mezuo Nwuneli, to combat malnutrition, displace imports and reduce the amount of postharvest losses among smallholder farmers. She is also the managing partner of Sahel Consulting, has authored Social Innovation in Africa: A Practical Guide for Scaling Impact and has received numerous awards and recognitions.
Where does the motivation come from for initiatives like AACE Foods?
The passion and sense of urgency behind the creation of the company was motivated by three facts. Firstly, according to the 2013 Demographic and Health Survey, thirty-seven percent of Nigerian children under five are classified as stunted, and eighteen percent are considered wasted. This contributes to Nigeria’s high infant-mortality and maternal-mortality rates in our country. Secondly, field research in Nigeria has proven that between twenty and forty percent of grains, tubers, herbs, fruits and vegetables grown and harvested by smallholder farmers across the country are wasted annually. Thirdly, ninety percent of the processed food consumed in Nigeria is imported. Our company aims to directly address the high levels of malnutrition in Nigeria and capitalize on the dearth of locally manufactured food products. We provide support to smallholder farmers, empowering them with training and access to microfinance and storage tech.
What were some of your early struggles and challenges as a founder, and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge has been finding committed and capable team members for the different ventures that I have established. This is even more difficult in the agriculture and food landscapes. Sadly, many people who studied agriculture in university did not choose this path. It’s typically their fourth or fifth option. In addition, the way that agriculture is taught in universities is science-focused and not business-related. As a result, we have had to train and retrain our team members and really instill a passion for agriculture. To address this issue, we launched the Sahel Scholars Programme at the University of Nigeria in 2017 and later expanded to other schools to change the mindsets of students, which enabled us to find passionate and capable team members.
What do you believe was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?
As an entrepreneur, it is important to recognize that your market changes every day. You have to be poised to respond appropriately. Becoming a proactive entrepreneur instead of a reactive one requires that you always have plans A, B and C to respond to shifts in market dynamics. For example, AACE Foods introduced jams as our first product line in the Nigerian retail space, given the high rates of postharvest losses for fruits in our country. We believed that Nigerians would enjoy pineapple, mango, guava and even papaya jam. Sadly, the price of sugar, a key ingredient, doubled a few months into our venture, making our product uncompetitive relative to imports. Also, we learned that the average Nigerian preferred red jam, which was largely influenced by imported strawberry jam. Given the unfavorable conditions for strawberry cultivation in Nigeria, we struggled to find suitable alternatives that would produce the same results. We were compelled to swiftly shift our plans to producing spices sourced from local farmers for fast-food chains, noodle companies and for retail.
What do you believe has been your best decision as a founder?
The best decision for me was knowing when to step away from day-to-day management and let other people grow the organization. I did this in 2007 at LEAP and I remain an active board member. Also, Mezuo and I also stepped out of the day-to-day management of AACE Foods in 2014, but we both still sit on the board.
What professional advice would you give people in the early stages of starting up?
Starting a new venture is not an easy feat; it’s like embarking on an adventure where you are unclear of the path ahead and there’s no guarantee of success. However, it’s extremely rewarding and you have the potential to transform the lives of your team members, suppliers, distributors and the communities in which you operate. Before you start an enterprise, test your motivation and the depth of your passion: what gives you joy, what makes you angry, what are you willing to do for free, what problem are you trying to solve? It’s also vital that you write your plan down. There’s a popular Benjamin Franklin quote that reflects this: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Outline the mission and purpose of your venture, the end state you desire and the values and enduring principles. Of course, you also should develop a business plan that outlines on a high level the products and services you offer, an assessment of your market and competition, operational strategies, finances, risks and growth strategies. You’ll need this for internal communications, and also for effectively engaging investors and board members.
Another important piece of advice is to be disciplined about your finances. It’s smart to be prudent, start with mistakes that potentially lose a little money, not a lot, and grow organically. Separate your personal funds from those of the company and make sure you pay yourself a salary from the founding date. Lastly, be ready to respond to change. Things change daily for entrepreneurs, so you have to be ready to respond to anything and everything. Be proactive, rather than reactive.
How would you define the startup culture and ecosystem in Lagos? What are the benefits of starting up there, and how do you see the ecosystem evolving in the future?
The ecosystem is evolving and there is a vibrant and young culture here in the city. There is also a range of support structures and hubs that help entrepreneurs. It’s definitely an exciting time to be an entrepreneur in Lagos.
I envision a flourishing, sustainable and just food ecosystem that leverages agtech and digital innovations and ensures the availability and affordability of nutritious food for all people, especially the most vulnerable across Africa.
How do you define an excellent hire for your team? How did you build your team culture, and what are the values you hold to be most important?
An excellent hire is humble, hungry and has emotional intelligence. He or she should be a mission-driven high achiever who wants to learn and grow. In every organization that I have established, I have invested in building merit-driven learning cultures that are based on excellent and open communication and integrity. Your team should share your values, and as a founder you should invest in training for your team. Entrepreneurship can be lonely and filled with hurdles, so you really need a great team, a committed board and lots of support. Having a strong board makes you more credible and provides you with support and advice. My recommendation is to bring on a lawyer, an accounting and financing guru, an expert in branding and communications and someone who knows your specific subject matter really well.
How do you keep yourself inspired and disciplined? Are there habits and routines that you’ve found particularly helpful as a founder?
My primary motivation for life and work is my faith in God. I rely on this relationship for vision, passion and strength. I also stay focused on the impact that I am having in my journey, including small milestones and quick wins, which keep me motivated to keep pushing forward. I am very disciplined about how I spend my time, and I juggle my various roles as a social entrepreneur, board member for local and international organizations, wife, mother, sister, auntie and friend. I also work extremely hard and have high expectations of myself. I invest in building and sustaining strong networks and relationships all over the world. I am not afraid to ask for help from other entrepreneurs or experts when I need it. I am prepared to learn from others and to begin again.
The agriculture sector has many challenges, but also numerous rewards. Every time I visit our factory and interface with our workers – many of whom were previously unemployed and now have a stable income and health insurance – I am overwhelmed with joy. Similarly, our ability to source from over ten thousand farmers, whose lives have been transformed through training, the provision of microfinancing and the introduction to technology, has been fulfilling. The best part is seeing our products being consumed and the steps involved in getting them from the farm to the fork, and the impact the process can have along the way.
Looking to the future, what are the biggest challenges ahead for the ventures that you have established, and what are your hopes for the coming years?
The biggest challenge that I have is scaling my ventures in a tough operating environment. LEAP has scaled beyond Nigeria to six African countries, and Sahel Consulting has scaled beyond Lagos. We now have an Abuja office and team members in five additional Nigerian states. AACE Foods has scaled in terms of revenue and number of employees, and has also expanded its reach to global markets. However, scaling is tough and requires the right business models, talent, financing, partnerships and resilience. I envision a flourishing, sustainable and just food ecosystem that leverages agtech and digital innovations and ensures the availability and affordability of nutritious food for all people, especially the most vulnerable across Africa. I would like Sahel Consulting and AACE Foods to play a pivotal role in the transformation of the agriculture and food landscapes in Africa.
What are your top work essentials?
My computer and telephone.
At what age did you found your company?
Twenty-eight (LEAP), thirty-two (Sahel Consulting Agriculture & Nutrition Ltd.) and thirty-four (AACE Foods).
What’s your most used app?
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
From Matthew 6:33, “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.”
What’s your greatest skill?
My ability to multitask.